All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being (Wilder, p.68).
Looking at what happens in Act III with reference to that quotation, it is clear that Wilder is trying to say that something about Emily lives on in the town. It is not Emily. By having the Stage Manager offer to take her back to life and demonstrating that Emily literally cannot return to the world of the living, Wilder explodes the idea that Emily can return to the living. He makes it clear that death does mean the end of something. However, it is important to realize that Wilder's play does show some type of life in the cemetery. The cemetery's inhabitants may not be engaging in the world in the same way as the living; instead, they are very clearly detached from what is going on in the outside world, but that does not mean that they are no longer operating in some manner. Emily has ceased to exist on one plane of existence; she can no longer affect things that are occurring in real time in Grover's Corner. However, Emily has continued to exist on another plane of existence. The play closes with her watching the stars come out over Grover's Corner, not with her simply ceasing to exist, closed up in a box. Obviously, that is a strong message about the possibility of eternal life.
However, the existence of a soul or something else eternal in an actual human being is not Wilder's sole message in this play. The play is also a study of the town itself and how it has changed over time, but despite those changes, how something in the town remains eternal as well. The Stage Manager mentions the changes to the town in his soliloquy at the beginning of Act III. He discusses the fact that the residents are no longer the trusting people that they were at the beginning of the story. He talks about things like robberies and the fact that people no longer leave their doors unlocked, even though no one in the town has actually been the victim of a robbery, yet. Instead, he talks about how the spirit of the town has started to change. However, while the spirit of the town has changed, so many of the people are playing the same roles that they once played. Moreover, while people are locking their doors at night and growing wary of one another, they come together to support each other when Emily dies.
Emily's funeral helps highlight some of the changes in the town. Many of the town's residents have remained the same, and, on a surface level, some things have remained unchanged. The very fact that George and Emily married, which kept George from leaving Grover's Corner to pursue an education, is a testament to some things staying the same. However, at Emily's funeral, the audience is introduced to some of the people who have left Grover's Corner and to the idea that the very nature of the town has changed. No longer are people expected to stay in one place from birth until death. Instead, people are becoming transient and towns are changing. Here, the Stage Manager's remarks about the robberies begin to make more sense. When the only people in a town are people who have known each other from birth onwards, then one would not expect robberies and other crimes. Instead, the town has the feeling of an extended family. In fact, this family-feeling is very clear at the beginning of the play. While the town's inhabitants all have their own individual morning routines, the audience sees how those routines interact with one another, and how the town is a cohesive unit, not simply a collection of households.
By Act III, one can see the beginnings of the death of the town, despite the fact that Grover's Corner still has a substantial population and is certainly not a ghost town. In fact, it is not so much that Grover's Corner is dying, at that point, but that it is no longer growing and thriving, and that, once a town stops growing and thriving, it is only a small step before that town begins to die. Emily is gone, but Emily is not the only casualty. Children grow up and move away from Grover's Corner. Though not explicitly stated, it seems clear that some of the traditional roles in town will no longer be filled, because children are not growing up to take over what their parents once did. The vitality of the town is changing. How much clear could this be than by looking at the change in setting? The play begins by looking at young love, but Act III is set in a cemetery. The Stage Manager, who was once talking about young love and the minute details of daily life in the small town, is talking about the idea of eternity and how something can last. His speech even speaks to the idea that the town will die. When discussing the idea that some things are eternal, the Stage Manager makes it clear that buildings and names and other physical things are not eternal. He even denies the eternity of the stars. This speech makes it clear that a town is not going to be eternal. Yet, it leaves itself open to the possibility that something about the town, even if not the town itself can be eternal. After all, why talk of eternity at all if everything discussed in that same soliloquy is shown to die?
While the town itself is actually dying, it is important to recognize that, just as Emily signifies more than a single human being, Grover's Corner signifies more than simply a small town in America. With its absence of props, it can be difficult to place a time or a fixed place for the story that occurs in Our Town, though it is clear that the story begins sometime around the turn of the 19th century. This is a conscious choice. Props help people place time and place, so that a story without props becomes more applicable to everyone in the audience. A prop-less story that talks about death becomes even more applicable, since every person in an audience is going to eventually confront his or her own death. This means that the story can speak to everyone. The Stage Manager's words about eternity then become personal; he is telling the audience that not only is there something about Emily and about Grover's Corner that is eternal, but there is something about you that is eternal as well. This is relevant, even though the play makes it clear that what is eternal about Emily is not her life, or even the impact that she, as an individual, had on any single person or on the town as a whole.
Looking at the story from the third angle, as the story of America, it becomes apparent that Wilder is discussing the idea of America as eternal as well. The story does not focus on the history of what was actually going on in America at that time, and, in fact, in Act III, the Stage Manager gives little indication as to what may be occurring in the outside world, though there are some hints to outside events revealed in the actions taken by some of the play's characters. However, despite these hints, an uninformed observer may not understand how the story of Our Town is the story of America in transition. However, it is almost impossible to miss that message when watching the play if someone has any knowledge of American history. America, at that time, was, for many Americans, an idealized setting. In small towns, people could leave their doors unlocked, trust their neighbors, and expect to raise their families in a single location.
However, America went through a major social upheaval during the course of what is Emily's life. A later audience realizes that the changes one sees in Grover's Corner by the end of the play are miniscule when compared to the changes facing Americans in the decades after the play. After all, Grover's Corner, which seemed to be dying during the play, has yet to be hit by the Great Depression or the impact of the Second World War. These things are coming, and the modern audience is aware of these changes. The modern audience is also aware that there is no way that the coming social upheaval is going to leave Grover's Corner unscathed. The town will be impacted by those social changes, and, even though there is going to be a lot of positive advances that come along with those changes, the idealization of small town America is…